My intention is to work hard and try to get some ‘live’ shows for next year. I really think this new album’s gonna be a killer and it’s definitely gonna be our best album yet …
Solstice is nominally a prog band, but one with a considerable influx of New Age and Folk influences. Formed in 1980 by guitarist Andy Glass (now the sole remaining original member) they were one of the bands involved in the early ‘80s renaissance of Prog, after the period where it’d been felt Punk had swept away all which had gone before in a tidal wave of spit and dandruff. The early ‘80s scene, with bands like Solstice, alongside others like Marillion, Pallas, IQ, Twelfth Night, Pendragon and others, is often considered as being the movement which helped breathe new life back into what was considered to be a stagnant and dormant Prog scene. But Solstice were almost the ‘odd one out’ in that they were more of a prog-folk band who featured a violin, had a female singer who sounded like a female Jon Anderson, didn’t use synthesisers to create layers of sound and they didn’t look to Yes or Genesis for their inspiration.
Several of these bands ultimately signed with major labels, with Marillion going on to become a household name, and Pendragon and IQ becoming cult bands, but Solstice initially didn’t sign with anybody, and it’s claimed they even turned down the chance to sign with EMI as they didn’t want to be tied to a major label. They were more a hippie-like, earth-loving band and their hearts were more into the ‘free festival scene,’ alongside bands like Hawkwind and the Ozrics, despite making the now legendary Marquee club almost a second home, appearing there several times. As a result, their debut album, Silent Dance, which ended up taking longer to record than expected and cost more than anticipated, wasn’t released until 1984, and was regarded as being a ‘minor masterpiece of relatively early neo-prog rock music,’ and one of the finest debut albums in the prog scene.
In 1985, however, Solstice then went into the first of their ‘downtimes’ as, while their spiritual home was the ‘free festival movement,’ the tide was turning against such gatherings, as witnessed by the legislation enacted by Government and the appalling behaviour of the police at the ‘battle of the Beanfield,’ 1985. But despite a few periods of inactivity down the years, Solstice are still with us and still guided by Andy Glass. The band are currently writing and rehearsing a new album, which is as yet untitled, as are the new songs, which it’s hoped will be released before years end, with gigs to follow in 2021. So, what can Solstice fans expect from the new release ?
“Well, firstly, there’s a new singer in Jess Holland, our seventh,” Andy Glass explains with a smile. “I’ve known her for years and I’ve been working with her on a couple of other projects. She’s a complete unknown, really, but she’s a sensational musician, and she’s the bass player in the other band I’m in. I’d been writing some music which wasn’t actually earmarked for Solstice at all, but when I started working with Jess, I thought, ‘my God, this is Solstice music’, so we made the change and she’s responsible for this surge of creativity we’re going through at the moment. Our first gig with her will be in Milton Keynes on 24th April, and we can only hope people agree with us about her, because she’s great. We’ll also be playing at the Cambridge rock festival in June, and if you come you’ll have to be up early to see us because we’re onstage at eleven in the morning, though I don’t know how many we’ll be playing to”. He laughs at the thought. “Sounds more like a coffee morning, doesn’t it ?”
Emma Brown had been in Solstice for some while, so why did she leave, I wondered? “Yeah, she’d been in the band since Circles. We’d had a long and productive relationship but the band had reached the point where, when we got together, we were just going through the motions, really. I mean, obviously we loved playing but we weren’t moving forwards in any kind of way. People would ask, when you gonna do some new music, make a new album, and the truth was the fire and the inspiration to do this didn’t really exist. But, when I started working with Jess, it all started to come back. She’s full of ideas and full of energy, and she’s so into the music, which is just great, so it was really my decision we should work with her. It wasn’t a case of Emma leaving the band, it was me saying to Emma, look, I’m working with this new singer and it’s gonna be a new chapter for Solstice, and this was the way it went. No drama. Solstice was only a small part of what she does, really. It was only a few gigs a year, and the mojo just wasn’t there for another album with Emma, but working with Jess has restored this fully. I can’t wait to get into the studio and work with her.”
The conversation then turned to other outdoor events Solstice have performed at, including 2019’s New Day festival, which this scribe was there to see. “Yeah, we did, and we were on early there as well, weren’t we? I was looking forward to playing there because there were a whole bunch of guys on the bill I’d not seen for years, including Clive Bunker, who was playing in Martin Barre’s band but who’d been in Solstice in the ‘90s, and played on our album Circles. Their backstage camp was next to ours so we were able to sit and chat all afternoon, which was great, and I caught their set, which was just brilliant. And the whole vibe of New Day was just brilliant as well.”
Andy then goes on to explain his connection with Martin Barre, which it seems goes back some years. “Yeah, it does. I worked for Jethro Tull back in the nineties, did several American and European tours with them. We did a lot with them. But what was great about seeing Martin and Clive play is they were having such a great time. There’s such a great atmosphere in their band,” he emphasises the point, “and they were clearly enjoying themselves. To be honest, I’d never really seen this before. I mean, it was great working front of house for Tull, and I loved it, but Tull didn’t seem to have that joy of playing together Martin’s band had, which is what made their set such a good one.”
Going back to the new album, it is fair to say Solstice are hardly prolific, given the new release, when it arrives, will only be the band’s seventh studio album since 1980, though two ‘live’ sets have been released as well. “Yeah,” he agrees, “ but we did have a burst of creativity not too long back. We did Spirit in 2010 and the ‘live’ album, Kindred Spirit in 2011 and then Prophecy in 2013 so this was quite prolific for Solstice,” he says in an amused tone. “But, I think you’re gonna see another prolific phase now. I’m really excited by the new material and I can’t wait to get out and play it. The album won’t be out till late in the year, or possibly early next year, but we’re gonna start playing stuff from it in April when we have a couple of gigs, in Milton Keynes and also at Winters End.”
Right back to the beginning of Solstice, the line-up of the band has been in a state of continuous flux. New vocalist Jess Holland is the band’s seventh singer, and the first three albums saw personnel changes on each one. The band have really only had the same line-up for the last three albums, and with the departure of Emma Brown, the new album will feature a different voice from Prophecy. The guitar’s the only instrument which has been played by the same person since the beginning. “Correct, you’re right. It’s been me keeping this thing going all this time. But for me Solstice is my creative outlet as most of the other work I do, like film music, is my bread and butter. Solstice is something I have to do as I’d go mad without it, but it’s been a bit of a downer, and I’ve not felt it’s been the right outlet for it for some years.” So, are continuous changes in personnel a source of frustration or is it energising? “ Well, this is a perfect case in point with a new member bringing fresh energy to the band in a big way so I’m really happy with this,” he says calmly. “But, sometimes it works and other times it doesn’t. We had a couple of changes with the first line-up, and Sandy Leigh (original singer) left the band, and Ken Bowley and Barbara Deacon came in, which wasn’t really a good move. We did one tour and they were great people, but there’s a chemistry involved in a band and it didn’t work here. But it was great playing with Clive Bunker, he’s a legend, and Emma was in the band by now, which was initially great. But this line-up’s now been together since 2007, apart from the singer, so for us this is a pretty long run.”
Steven Wilson was an early fan of Solstice. As a 14 year old in Hemel Hempstead in 1982, he saw Solstice as the opening act for Marillion. Wilson claimed to have seen several of the prog bands playing around this time, saying “but Solstice were the best. Musically, they stood out and were very accomplished at what they were doing and, with a violin player, they stood out from the ‘rough and ready’ approach of other bands.” Is Steven Wilson likely to be involved with the new album, given his help with Prophecy? “Yeah, he did help out,” Andy acknowledges. “He turned up when we did the launch gig for Spirit back in 2010. Someone said he was in the audience. I was doubtful about it, but he was there and we got talking. He turned up again when we played the Underworld in Camden and asked if we had the master tape for Silent Dance. He remixed his favourite tracks from the album and it sounds fabulous indeed, like I’d like it to have sounded first time around. But I’ve not had any contact with him for a while, and I can’t think why he’d wanna get involved with this album, so I don’t imagine he will, but it’d be nice if he did,” he laughs. “He’s very respectful in the way he approaches remixes. He honours the original intention of the bands he remixes, which I suppose is why bands want him to do this work.”
Solstice formed in 1980 but the debut album, Silent Dance, wasn’t released until 1984, by which time many of their contemporaries had signed with labels and making their debut albums pretty quickly. Did Andy think this four year gap, plus the refusal to sign with EMI, was ultimately not in the band’s better interest? “Actually, it didn’t quite get that far. What happened was John Arnilson, who was Marillion’s manager at the time and who got them signed to EMI, he approached us about being our manager, and this possibly might have led to us signing with EMI, who knows? But at the time we were just anti, or untrusting of, the whole industry. We used to be involved in the whole free festival thing. We were hippies and quite anti-establishment. One or two of the band might have jumped at it, but me, Marc and Sandy, we just weren’t interested. We were having such a great time doing what we were doing, we were DIY and out touring all the time. Yeah, we could have made an album but in those days we could sell cassettes, and we never had the money to go and record an album anyway, that was the bottom line really. So, we turned John Arnilson down. We did have a short period being managed by Harry Malone, and it was him organised the Brave New World tour we did with Pallas and Trilogy, but it didn’t last long.
Every time we got close to this we shied away from it. Had we signed with them (EMI) it might have been good”. He pauses, “but I don’t have any regrets about it at all. We just stayed true to what our view at the time was. We had such a great time so why would we want any of this to unfold differently?”
Looking ahead, with a new singer in the band and a new album being worked on, what are Andy’s aspirations for Solstice? “What we’d love to do is to put the new album out and play some more gigs, but touring is so financially unviable, so the perfect outlet for us is doing more summer festivals, and we’re playing Winter’s End in April. So, any of those prog festivals or general festivals we can get in on, we’ll try for. My intention is to work hard and try to get some ‘live’ shows for next year. I really think this new album’s gonna be a killer and it’s definitely gonna be our best album yet, so I’m really excited about this. But I’m not under any illusions about the numbers it’ll sell. Our last album Prophecy did pretty well and I think the new one’ll be a big step forward.” Is the album being ‘crowdfunded’? “No. Between the members of the band, we all have recording facilities at home, so we can record the album ourselves, which means we don’t really need the money for expensive studios. But I’m gonna hawk it around and see if I can interest a company into putting it out, which’d be great, and if not we’ll do it ourselves. I’ve never actually tried crowdfunding. I mean it worked for Marillion, didn’t it?” he laughs “but then it helps to have a great fanbase, doesn’t it? They’ve done really well and I admire them for what they’ve done.”
I conclude what had been a really interesting talk by throwing at Andy a comment I’d read about him. It went “Solstice aren’t really a band, they’re an Andy Glass project”, which produces a belly laugh from him. “No, it’s a band,” he says between laughs, “I’m sure it’s a band, and it is what it is because of the people within the band. I suspect this comes from the fact that, on the last two albums, I’ve written all the songs and then the band add their own playing to what I’ve written. So it’s my music, but the band own it by doing their thing with it, and I’m not dictatorial about what they play. We’re a band of brothers, we have a lovely relationship and we enjoy doing it and putting our energies into it, so it’s definitely a band,” he states with finality. So there!